Beyond Growth Handling more than 7,000 walk-ins at this year's event was a wake-up call for meeting managers of the Optical Fiber Communication Conference. They needed to automate - and fast.

The world of fiber optics is an invisible one, but tell that to attendees who, for the past two years, have been coming to the annual Optical Fiber Communication Conference and Exhibit in droves. This year's figures - representing a 71 percent increase - astounded the event's meeting managers, completely blowing out their already hefty 30 percent attendance growth projections.

With an amazing 7,000-plus walk-ins at OFC 2000 in Baltimore in March, Cynthia Gady, director of meetings and exhibits for the Washington, D.C.-based Optical Society of America, had to do a number of things immediately - shift logistics, find more hotel rooms, enlarge the exhibit space. There was also the matter of bringing 20 more staff members from headquarters, calling temp agencies, adding more counters for registration, finding pens, badge holders, and program materials. The real challenge, though, was finding the space. "I can do many things," Gady says, "but creating an extra room is not one of them."

Explaining the phenomenal growth of OFC - from 10,000 to 17,000 attendees in two years - is easy, says Gady. "Optics has a pervasive impact on our lives, from lasers that do everything to scanners in the grocery store to communications," she says. The stock market is another indicator. "Companies that take our research make lots of money," she says.

How hot is the optics market? White hot, says Gady. "I had an exhibit that sold out nine months before the show," she says, "with no marketing or promotion. And I think it will continue - at the employment center at OFC, there are 12 jobs for every applicant. That's a good indicator."

This is all good news for the optics industry, but as a meeting planner, Gady was forced to completely dismantle her plans for next year's event. In fact, at the March event in Baltimore, while she was handling the 7,000-attendee overflow and a jump in exhibit space from 300,000 square feet to 525,000 square feet, she was on the phone canceling San Francisco for OFC 2001 and Atlanta for 2002. Her projections for those meetings: more than 800,000 square feet needed.

"There was no way San Francisco was going to hold us and thank God we didn't go to contract yet with Atlanta," says Gady, who did have attrition clauses with the Moscone Convention Center in San Francisco and several hotels there. The center, she says, resold the space and gave her a refund, and the hotels are in the process of selling off rooms. Meanwhile, during OFC 2000, Gady called every city she could think of that would be able to hold the unwieldy and unpredictable OFC - Dallas, New Orleans, Chicago, Orlando, and Las Vegas. She settled on the Anaheim Convention Center, Anaheim, Calif., for both 2001 and 2002. In fact, says Gady, Anaheim did some rescheduling to accommodate the event.

Enter Automation "If I didn't become active in doing a virtual trade show," says Gady, "one of our exhibitors would have." Especially in the arena of fiber optics, where the level of technical savvy is high, the chances are very good that someone would beat OSA to the virtual punch. With a long waiting list for exhibitors for the physical show, putting the OFC exhibit online was the only logical step.

Gady shopped around for an Internet-based trade show provider and settled on Irvine, Calif.-based eTradeshow.com (www.etradeshow.com). "I can't slip things by my high-tech group," Gady says, "and we wanted all the bells and whistles." A CAD-based floor plan allows Gady to look at the virtual spaces with an exhibitor across the country or the globe, in real time, which in her mind is among the best features. Currently, there is no e-commerce on the virtual show site, but Gady is working on it.

If any lessons were learned from Baltimore, it was with OSC's preregistration activities. First, Gady says, the meetings department will be soliciting the walk-ins from a database collected over the last two years. "We're going to tell them that if they preregister, the conference and exhibit is free," she explained, "but if they register on site, it will cost them $60." Gady will also be concentrating more on pre-mailings and preregistration packets and, in addition to registration counters on the site, will set up self-registration areas, mainly to ease any unexpected surge of walk-ins.

Keeping Talent In-house, Gady's department recently automated OSA's peer review system, where now the call-for-papers process, submissions, and reviews are all done online. "We saved thousands of dollars in FedEx charges alone," Gady notes, "and the staff can do more creative things." It also keeps them happy.

"We work with about 15,000 submissions per year for the 20 meetings our department handles," Gady says."We're working on 4,000 papers at any given point and this creates a huge burnout factor because of the sheer volume." Automation - such as online call for papers and event registration and housing - is the answer. "It's how I can keep people," she says, "and I'm a strong believer in human equity. My staff is the most important thing I have going."

The OSA board of directors apparently agrees. "They've approved six new staff members for the care and feeding of this meeting," Gady says, "and the budget has grown."

OSA is one of three owners of the OSC conference and show and has the added responsibility of managing the event, for which OSA is paid a fee based on a percentage of the exhibit revenue.

"It's a very good meeting for us," she says, "and it's the major source of revenue for the association. It used to be publications, but this meeting really has the attention of our board."